Comprehensive Research Results on Ethnozoology of Maya Crocodiles and on Iconography of all aspects of Crocodiles and composite Monsters


This download is all 192 pages together (all six chapters together).

If you prefer smaller files, you can download each individual chapter separately, below.

Our decades of experience with flora and fauna help in iconographic studies

I learn about iconography and basics of epigraphy first by studying the actual plants and animals out in the swamps, marshes, forests, savannas of biodiverse habitats of Guatemala. We have over 30 TERAbytes of high-resolution digital photos of flora, fauna and ecosystems (we hope to find a university, museum or research institute that would be able to provide space and funding to make all this material available on-line in an accessible database with each photo at high-resolution).

For the iconography aspect, obviously have a traditional library but now in the digital era many thousands of PDFs of books, theses, dissertations, and articles from peer-reviewed journal articles. Plus the FLAAR Photo Archive of decade after decade of photographing throughout Copan, and sites across Mesoamerica and museums around the world. Our goal is to make this material available, subject-by-subject, and now we offer crocodiles. We will have a dozen additional topics from our photography at Copan, Honduras ready during September.

In 1961, at age 16, I explored the rain forests of Tabasco. I asked a local Maya person to show me the rain forest. Then that evening I took the train to Palenque. The hotel there cost 50-cents a night and the toilet was a bowl under the bed (at age 16 that was all I could afford).

In 1962 I worked as a volunteer in a small village in central Mexico to teach English to children from the far away mountain area.

In 1963 I happened to be at the same pension in Tabasco as the INAH team heading to Bonampak, and when I heard them speaking about Bonampak I asked them if I could help them carry equipment hiking the many kilometers to reach Bonampak (no road in that decade and not even a runway for single-engine plants; you had to fly to a Lacandon village and hike through the pristine rain forest). I also offered to help them set up camp for a week. Then I continued on and got to Tikal where I stayed an entire week. In 1964 I was back at Tikal for a week and the archaeologists noticed I was a photographer with a Leica and that I was studying Architectural Sciences at Harvard. So Peter Harrison asked if I could return in 1965 for an entire year (which I gladly accepted). Lots of crocodiles in the aguadas at Tikal.

Then in 1970’s, four years of multi-month field work mapping Yaxha with Miguel Orrego, other helpful Guatemalan archaeology students, and volunteer student interns. Lots of crocodiles in Lake Yaxha.

Now, since 2018, we have been back in Peten with project-after-project (all flora, fauna, and biodiverse ecosystems). Then a 17-month project in the wetlands of Izabal, the Caribbean part of Guatemala. And now a 5-year project with CONAP back in Peten. So lots of opportunities to study crocodiles.

These years of experience with all three species of crocodilians (two crocodiles and one caiman) help me recognize which teeth are crocodiles and which teeth are vipers (and which teeth are composites and which teeth are mythical). Plus iconographic research for decades helped me be able to prepare the six chapters of a PowerPoint presentation in-person at the Museo Popol Vuh, Universidad Francisco Marroquin, on 27 July, 2023. I thank MPV curator, epigrapher Camilo Luin for the invitation. He knows iconography and archaeology in addition to epigraphy and teaches at several universities in Guatemala City.

Now that the English edition is finished, we will update the Spanish chapters and hope to have them available by September.


To study crocodile iconography it helps considerably to study the actual crocodiles out in the rivers, swamps, marshes, lakes and lagoons of in-land Peten, Izabal (facing Amatique Bay of the Caribbean Sea), and the Monterrico area facing the Pacific Ocean.

As you can tell from this front cover photo, we are close to this crocodile, and we have high-resolution digital camera equipment.

We recently found about 10 tiny baby crocodiles who were just learning to swim. This was in an aguada in a biodiverse tasistal savanna in Parque Nacional Laguna del Tigre. We have a 5-year project of cooperation and coordination with CONAP to study remote areas of the Reserva de la Biosfera Maya (RBM), Peten. We focus on areas that no intelligent professor has ever visited; no botanist, no geologist, no zoologist (because there is no comfortable hotel nearby and no way to get even a 4-wheel drive pickup truck anywhere near). So we sleep in tents and hike many kilometers to reach these remote areas.

Fortunately the parent crocodiles were nowhere near so the photo team could get within 1 meter of the babies (less than 2 centimeters wide and not even 1 foot long).

The photo above is a fully adult crocodile in Peten.


Since the lecture, in-person, was at the Museo Popol Vuh, Universidad Francisco Marroquin, Guatemala City, the front cover has their small 3-D ceramic figurine of a smiley crocodile and a smiley bat. Interesting is that NEITHER is shown here as an evil monster. They are shown as friends.

For many years FLAAR had a photo studio installed in the office-research-storage area of the Museo Popol Vuh. Then circa 2000-2004 the UFM assigned a guest visiting professor title to Nicholas Hellmuth and provided office and research space for our team studying advanced digital imaging technology and wide-format inkjet printing. Simultaneously FLAAR and Hellmuth had a comparable position at the College of Technology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

This chapter shows 3-dimensional sculptures and ceramic figurines of Maya crocodiles from museums around the world.


This is the shortest chapter in the presentation on Crocodile Iconography. Using drawings by scientific illustrator Luis Molina (FLAAR Mesoamerica) we show two very similar throne room mini-temples on two polychrome vases.


After Izapa several centuries earlier, then come Late Classic portraits of crocodiles in the bas-relief stone sculpture of Copan. Courtesy of IHAH permits and hospitality of Copan area museum staff, park rangers, and local people, we have dedicated our high-resolution digital photography equipment to photographing several key sculptures of Copan, Honduras. Plus the drawings by Barbara Fash, Anne Dowd and other capable illustrators of the Harvard, Peabody Museum projects, plus earlier drawings by Linda Schele help show students and the interested public the range of Crocodile aspects of the symbolism and cosmology of the rulers of Copan during the Late Classic.


Crocodile Trees are my favorite because I am interested in all plants that occur in Classic Maya art. Some Crocodile Trees have leaves and occasionally the tree calabash of Crescentia species (jicaro, morro trees). Other crocodile trees (shown above) have generic leaves of a supernatural plant that is very frequent in both funerals and other aspects of Maya mythology. The drawings by Ayax Moreno and other illustrators of the New World Archaeological Foundation are very helpful for all research on the Crocodile Trees of Izapa, Chiapas, Mexico.

This chapter also shows the Maya Crocodile trees of the Early Classic, Late Classic (Yaxchilan ballplayer panel and Codex Style vases), and Post Classic codices. The drawing by Alexandre Tokovinine of Codex Style vase Crocodile Tree is especially helpful to document the leaves and calabash fruits of a species of genus Crescentia. The drawing by Karl Taube of another Codex Style Crescentia tree (with identical leaves and cauliflorous tree calabash fruits) shows the tree with a variant or relative or composite of Loincloth Apron Face as truck of the tree (page 114). The excellent drawing by Lin Crocker of an Early Classic incised vase shows one of the two most complex scenes of Tzakol mythology of atypically large blackware cylindrical tripods (the Berlin Tripod is the other, but has no crocodiles).

We show the helpful rollout photos by Justin Kerr as well as the digital rollouts by Nicholas Hellmuth (page 106) with medium format scan-back of Better Light mounted on a 4x5” camera with Schneider or Rodenstock lenses of Made in Germany quality.


If you want to get deep into Maya cosmology (world view) of the Sky Above and the Surface of the Underwaterworld below, if you wish to see what iconographers are studying, this chapter will be helpful.

Originally called the Bicephalic Monster and then named the Cosmic Monster, this sky above, waterworld below creature includes features of crocodile, serpent underbelly scale pattern, deer and the Quadripartite Badge Headdress Monster (at the end of the Cosmic Monster). Each site and each century this complex mythical creature changed a bit (depending on what pretense the local king wanted his sculptors to create).

Drawings by Linda Schele of Palenque and other Maya sites are very helpful for illustrating PowerPoint presentations. It is especially helpful that her drawings are available on-line as easy downloads.

These PowerPoint PPTx format downloads are to facilitate your lectures

If you are a professor, you can help yourself to these PowerPoint presentations for your own class (you can also request that Hellmuth give it via Zoom, but that is not a requirement; you can simply use it yourself).

Bibliography, References Cited and additional Suggested Reading on Crocodiles, Caiman of Mesoamerica, and Crocodiles in Maya Art


First posted August 31, 2023 by Nicholas Hellmuth

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